This week we welcome Dr. Julia Zhao to the blog. Julia Zhao was born in China, grew up in Toronto, Canada and completed a PhD in medieval and Reformation history at the University of Notre Dame before following God’s call to ministry. She is currently completing a MDiv at Princeton Theological Seminary and in the ordination process with the Presbytery of Wabash Valley in Indiana. A convert to Christianity, Julia is passionate about the transformative power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christian individuals and communities and the diversity and global nature of the church.
I am a convert to Christianity. Having spent the first ten years of my life in a small town in south-central China where I had no exposure to Christianity, my conversion and baptism at the age of eleven coincided with immigration to Canada and navigating what it meant to become Canadian. Unconsciously therefore, when the waters of baptism washed over me, my sense of becoming Christian coincided with becoming Canadian, and leaving behind a past and an ethnic identity that I could not yet incorporate into my present and future and my new identity in Christ.
In the summer of 2019, while studying in a summer program at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute in Jerusalem with a group of graduate students from the University of Notre Dame, I reflected again on what it meant to be baptized and to claim membership in the Body of Christ. After an emotionally charged visit to Yad Vashem, our class reflected together on what it meant to accept responsibility, though not culpability, as modern Christians, for the anti-Semitism in the Church’s history and its role in paving the way for the Shoah. I wondered then what it meant to be a Christian of Chinese descent in the face of the euro-centric focus of the Church’s history. Was I obligated to take the same kind of responsibility for a history in which my own ancestors had no role? What responsibilities does my baptism confer, and what does it mean, for me as well as the Church which I love so well, to be incorporated into Christ as a disciple of Chinese descent?
I had decided then that there is a mutual responsibility. Through baptism, I was incorporated into the body of Christ, and thus I was indeed responsible, in the communal way in which all modern Christians are, for the atrocities in the Church’s history. However, this also meant that my fellow Christians must also incorporate my history, including my Chinese heritage, into their conception of the body of Christ, the history of the Church and the story of our faith.
As I learned more about Asian American theology at PTS, I have since reflected on what that meant. In our Asian American theology course, we learned a social-practical theory of doctrine that posits how theology is intricately linked to social and political realities in which particular doctrines arise and are practiced. In the case of Asian American theology, this means that “doing theology” in the Asian American context, can never be separated from the varied and multifaceted experience of being Asian in North America, including the experience of racial discrimination and even violence, the model minority myth and other experiences of marginalization and discrimination. When theology is entirely abstract and concerned only about ideas and concepts set apart from experience “on the ground”, such concerns are ignored as irrelevant and unimportant. However, I believe that the very idea of the body of Christ, and incorporation into this body via baptism, makes it impossible to ignore such social and political realities.
At the center of our faith is a God who became a human being. Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, is both the Lord God of the universe, and a particular human being within a particular culture at a particular time in history. Gregory of Nazianzus posits that everything about the human experience must be assumed in the incarnation of Christ since whatever is not taken up cannot be redeemed and healed. Beyond the specifically salvific function of redemption, this assumption or “taking up” into the incarnation also legitimizes and dignifies what is taken up, and culture and race, with all that is experienced as a result, are among what is taken up into Christ. Since the sacramentality of both baptism and Communion recall the incarnation of Christ, the “I” who was incorporate into Christ and the Church as the body of Christ through the waters of baptism, is Chinese-Canadian, and all the “on the ground” experiences which come with that identity.
When I reflected the responsibilities conferred on me through the waters of baptism, I realized that full membership in the Church meant accepting the history of the Church, with all that is horrible and beautiful in it, as my history. However, being taken into the body of Christ also means that my history, as a Chinese-Canadian woman, become a part of this story of this Body. Asian American theology centers these experiences and counters the narrative that history of the Church in Europe and North America is normative while all others are incidental and unimportant. When I take Communion, when I pray, when I lead worship services and when I preach, I do so as an immigrant and a woman of Chinese descent. As I take up the mantle of ordination as a Presbyterian pastor, I will do so in the same way. A months ago, as I tried on clerical robes and stoles at a campus event, I was in awe as I put on the powerful symbols of our faith, representing the weighty and awesome call of ordained ministry. The story of the incarnation of Christ, and our incorporation into Christ through baptism means that it is not incidental that the body which wears these robes is Chinese-Canadian. Rather, this is central to my discipleship and my ministry. Christian theology claims that the business of discipleship is to follow in the way of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Education in Asian American theology, as a part of my theological education at Princeton Seminary, was pivotal in my recognition of this fact.